Holobiont Shorelines: Adopting a Nature-Based Approach to Protecting Miami’s Coastline

All photographs, maps, and visualizations are by me unless otherwise noted*
Data was sourced from multiple organizations such as NOAA, USGS, FDEP, Miami-Dade County, and others.

I grew up in Miami, where water shapes the landscape continuously. Over the years, however, the anthropogenic changes became so evident that our coastlines now suffer from biodiversity loss, flooding, severe storms, and contamination, among other hazards, turning a once hydrophilic city into a race against water.

Climate Change and the City

Miami is sandwiched between the salty Atlantic and the sweet, slow-moving Everglades in a concrete metropolis built atop porous oolite rock. Rain water in the urban core is collected and diverted into the sea by storm drains. Not only does that keep it from filtering back into the aquifer, but as the sea level rises, those storm drains increasingly overflow.

Nestled between the Everglades to the west and Biscayne Bay and the ocean to the east, Miami has unique environmental and social qualities that make these challenges important to address.

“You have to think of Miami as a sponge in water”

-Maurice Ferré, Former Mayor of Miami

Among the threats Floridians face are storm surge from the ocean, flooding from rainfall and urban runoff in cities, seasonal high ground water, as well as global sea level rise. Here, tropical storms and hurricanes jeopardize neighborhoods, and rising seas contribute to tidal flooding, threatening the aquifer that supplies the region’s drinking water, polluting the Bay, and killing fish. With half of Florida’s wetlands destroyed, the coastal city of six million people is left with little shoreline protection.

Depicted above is a map of Florida shows the water bodies, rivers, and lakes in the state. The Everglades is shown in blue as it is often referred to as a “slow moving river.”

Considered one of the most vulnerable cities in the world, Miami faces a real existential question. According to Zillow, a quarter of U.S. homes at risk from rising seas are in Miami. In the year 2100, large areas of South Florida are projected (using NOAA and USGS data) to be under some level of water (shown in blue).

Incorporating sea-level rise strategies to mitigate these projections will be necessary, including raising our structures on elevated plinths, creating green and blue infrastructure, and addressing our waterfronts with adaptation strategies to protect people and biodiversity. 

A 20’ Sea Wall?

A proposal to construct barriers for storm surge protection has forced South Floridians to reckon with the many environmental challenges they face. Unfortunately, concrete sea walls are still the go to measure for coastal cities, as seen in the US Army Corps of Engineers propsed measure to build a giant sea wall to divide Miami from the water. The proposal, backed by millions of federal dollars, also threatens vulnerable communities in Miami, a subtropical enclave of immigrants.

This year, Florida experienced record breaking rainfall (63.5 cm in 6 hours), with a premature start to hurricane season due to warming seas. With worsening storms, concrete seawalls are the historic and current go-to solution. Florida has an intense history of water management to divert and control the flow of water, which started with draining existing wetlands to pave the way for development. Today, the city’s dire situation is worsened by our over-paving and manipulation of water, without regard for the vital ecosystems humans destroyed to make way for condos. In 2021, Miami’s Stormwater Master Plan estimated the “construction of a concrete seawall defense system, costing a whopping $3.2 billion for 267 miles of coastal barriers” (Miami New Times).

Rendering by Curtis and Rogers; Page from the New York Times “A 20-Foot Sea Wall? Miami Faces the Hard Choices of Climate Change.”

While research points to natural and nature-based features (NNBF), taking measures to build living shorelines is still met with political backfire. Last month, May 2023, Senator Garcia’s Mangrove Protection Rule, which would encourage coastal restoration and protection zones, was not passed, and deemed “dead”. Last year, Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo proposed changing city rules to ban planting new mangroves to protect “waterfront views” (Miami New Times).

Shifting Perspective: Using Nature As Mentor

This research focuses on the relationship between waterfront cities and estuarine ecology, coastal design typologies, and nature-based adaptation strategies in the built environment, as well as our human biological relationship to water. I utilized an interdisciplinary approach to address the gaps for using nature-based adaptations in coastal cities.

The restoration of wetlands and the establishment of protection zones, can play a significant role in safeguarding the region. Incorporating mangroves and native species will boost resiliency by creating natural buffers, allowing water to drain appropriately, prevent erosion/salt intrusion, and support biodiversity, like manatees, birds, and nursery fish.

Holobiont Shorelines

Map of the north region of Biscayne Bay showing the relationship between mangroves, seagrass populations, and coral reef tract in South Florida’s east coast

Holobiont species that rely on healthy mangrove and estuarine ecologies

Case Study

There is a timely and urgent need for adaptive measures, for local education on the subject, and for illuminating the natural wonder that is Biscayne Bay, Miami’s blue heart.

Florida International University’s Biscayne Bay Campus, adjacent to the Oleta River was used as a case study.

There are different infrastructure techniques, ranging from Gray to Green-Blue. This research is aimed at developing both Green-Blue techniques, as well as hybrid methods for addressing vulnerable coasts.

I developed a series of tools that sit between gray and green-blue techniques to explore potential shoreline regeneration and coastal protection methodologies.

From land to water, these tools act as a substrate for symbiotic shorelines, combining both nature and artificial innovative techniques, as well as fusing art and science. -Biodune’s goal is to function as a sand-dune stabilizer for coastal erosion. It is a mesh-like mold for grasses like Sea Oats. -Tide Pools create homes for marine life in shallow water. -Biowall is an attachment that is 3D printed to mimic the grooves and roots of mangroves. This slab is attatched to existing seawalls to increase biodiversity along the water by creating a textured mold. -Oyster Armature and Oyster Mesh work side by side to build living protective oyster mounds. As they grow, they can become oyster walls, like a natural speedbumo for incoming waves. -The Marine Mesocosm focuses on allowing researchers to study these communities in their environment.

Situated on FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus, this plan show we can help restore Biscayne Bay while using the toolkit to mitigate coastal hazards.

Illustrative section showing Nature-based approach to coastal protection.

Currently, I am focusing on developing strong communication elements to best represent how we can use nature-based solutions to develop coastal resilience in urban water-front cities, working with the Sea Level Solutions Center at Florida International University, where I am collaborating with the team to develop a Resilience Learning System Framework and Visualization. I am  coordinating and engaging in local to global solutions-oriented research, education, strategic thinking, visual communications and outreach by organizing top scientists, educators, students, municipal leaders and policymakers to produce an accurate understanding of impacts of sea level rise, climate change, and biodiversity loss. 

Research on going


“More than 65 million people—20% of the U.S. population—live in coastal cities, of which nearly 60% identify as BIPOC. We are unprepared for rising seas and storms, and historically-disadvantaged communities are often hit first and worst. Our safety, economies, cultures, and communities are at risk.”

-Urban Ocean Lab

Miami, Florida along Biscayne Bay during a Hurricane (Photograph in NY Times).

By the end of the century, global mean sea levels could rise by about 11 to 43 inches, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). South Florida is likely to face 17 to 31 inches of sea level rise by 2060, according to projections made last year at the Southeast Florida Climate Leadership Summit. Coupled with extreme heat, storms and flooding pose a serious threat to vulnerable coastal cities like Miami.

The maps above show the geographic paths of all hurricanes since 1842 organized by color: category 1 storms being blue, to category 5 storms being red

A Climate Literacy Problem

“Can Miami’s citizens, who have some of the lowest levels of non-electoral civic participation in the country, become engaged in the process? Can Florida’s politicians, many of whom don’t even believe in climate change, adapt?”

-Disposible City: Miami’s Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe, Mario Alejandro Ariza

How Can We Adapt to Change?

By treating our environment in a wholistic way, with the understanding that everything is inter-related, we can create adaptation solutions that address long term issues of sea-level rise and coastal hazards. Thats where holobionts come in, the assemblage of many species which form an ecological unit.

Using nature as mentor, I turn to the knowledge embedded in the ecosystems and relationships that have evolved over millions of years. This project is not only an investigation of nature based adaptations for urban coastal typologies, but also a call to action.

Cynthia Barnett, a Gainesville-based environmental journalist  said: “This idea of working with water rather than always fighting against it is really the lesson. If Florida history has taught us one thing, it’s that hardscaping this water that defines us will bring hardships to future generations.”

Agents of Resilience

In the 20th century, mangroves blanketed Florida coasts, providing shoreline protection and ecological balance. With the influx of urbanization, 44% of Florida’s wetlands have been dried and paved, with 86% of mangroves in Florida lost since the 1940’s. This lead to the passing of the Mangrove Trimming and Preservation Act many years later, in 1996. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) implemented the Mangrove Trimming and Preservation Act, which regulates the trimming and alteration of mangroves while also banning the use of herbicides and other chemicals used to defoliate mangroves. Unfortunately, most of the damage was already done, however, leaving Florida’s shorelines unprotected from storms and contaminated.

Illustration of Red Mangrove by unknown artist

Mangroves are agents of resilince. They attenuate incoming tides and promote marine biodiversity, acting as a holobiont and buffer for coastal communities.

Mangroves are holobionts because they form symbitotic relationships for many other species around them, and are vital to the survivability of this estuarine shoreline. A close up of the roots of mangroves shows the relationship they have with oyster communities, which rely on the mangrove roots for habitat and reproduction.

The figure above depicts a section of an urbanized coastline with a depleted marine shoreline. Wave height and strength remains constant as they impact the developed waterfront. The figure second figure depicts a section of an urbanized coastline with a biodiverse and healthy marine shoreline. Wave height and strength attenuates as waves pass by coral communities, seagrass patches, and eventually mangroves, the most direct line of nature-based defense before reaching the developed waterfront.

Map showing global mangrove species richness/ Map showing global mangrove forest area in square kilometers

Current range of mangrove species in Florida

Thin strip of mangroves at Oleta River State Park. As part of Green-Blue infrastructure, living shorelines can be composed of vegetation only, where species like red mangroves (shown above) create a natural barrier that attenuates wave activity.